Four Marks

From the makers of “two unrelated stories ungracefully crammed into a single 60 minute episode” now comes “THREE unrelated stories ungracefully crammed into a single 60 minute episode”.

The plot begins with introducing Yennefer who will remain the main focus of the episode’s arc. Much like how they introduced Geralt as a balck-eyed, Bambi-eating killing machine, Yennefer is also shown as an exaggerated version of herself.
It makes sense to start out characters with a spotlight on their shortcomings they must eventually overcome. Starting off almost caricature like, at the extreme end of their personalities opens the most room for the future development of these characters. It’s a cheap trick but it at least shows some degree of thought being put into narrative arcs.

Yennefer’s initial circumstances naturally stir sympathy for the character who has clearly been dealt a pretty rough hand by life. Her treatment is cartoonishly cruel, like some reject Disney princess origin story. Regrettably her resulting suicide attempt is woefully premature this early on, and as such has little impact. The audience is most surely sorry for Yennefer, but that doesn’t mean we are invested in her yet. To make a quick comparison, when the book details her attempt, it is done to give substance and contrast to the already established headstrong sorceress. I cannot help but feel like the show carelessly squandered one of the best character moments we could have shared with her.

On the note of making comparisons to the book: In the source material it is only hinted that Yen may have been a hunchback, whereas the show presents this as part of her main characteristics. It’s a nice wrinkle to the established canon and adds much needed depth to Yennefer’s new origin.

Just wating for prince charming.

This episode is again attempting to tell several stories at once. The A plot, following Yennefer, is the framing device. Geralt’s exploits serve as a nice self-contained B plot. Ciri gets the least attention during lively but expository scenes that hardly assemble into a cohesive arc. While the stories have their own distinct narrative, they also focus on hammering home a singular message. This world is racist.

Yennefer

As it is becoming custom, let’s take a look at each plot separately.

Yen’s story continues with a nice introduction to the rules of magic in the Witcher Universe. This explanation is more simplistic and more elegant than its counterpart in the books. Chaos is a good catch-all phrase for the unexplained, while giving just enough nuance to not fall into generic fantasy spell-slinging, although the “give and take” rule’s similarity to FullMetal Alchemist’s equivalent exchange system is bordering on plagiarism. Flashing out the world’s magic is a welcome addition, I just wish it was more original.

At the same time we are also introduced to Yennerfer’s fellow sorceress trainees. They almost entirely lack personality as of yet, but the name drops keep the fans of the lore happy. Thessia, their teacher and rector, is portrayed with suitable wisdom and muted compassion. She conveys great depth and authority, and is a standout presence of the episode. The trials the sorceress pupils undertake are all good “anime tournament” style fun. It’s a chance to spend more time developing Yen’s new status quo, and illustrate how she is slowly settling into her new circumstances.

Now it is unfortunately time to address the elephant in the room: Istredd. His “Oh, you’re a virgin” first line was so cringe-worthy the neighbors could hear me grunt. Sadly, it doesn’t get much better. Pretty boy Istredd’s character is about as deep as a pond in a drought. His fascination with Yennefer could be justified with some sweat, but his attraction to her is absolutely unreasonable. The pair share not a single spark of chemistry, and their relationship is about the most rushed thing the show has done so far. We are shown 2 brief scenes of them interacting before they proclaim their romantic intentions and suddenly become inseparable. The show later tries to explain this relationship with a weak mage espionage subplot, but this directly contradicts their attempt to portray a genuine connection between the characters. It’s like they know this romance is paper thin, so they try to salvage it by recontextualizing it as political intrigue. None of this even remotely works. They make Geralt and Refri look like a sweet pair in comparison.

The heavy handed exposition Istredd delivers about portals and old elven magic is visibly out of place and adds nothing to the overall plot, while taking away precious screen time from developing the two characters. The “this portal ain’t like other portals” bit is a small treat to those who have read the books, but it is far too early to be meaningful setup for future events.

Once we’ve overcome the trauma of the botched Istredd + Yen relationship, we are ambushed by yet another mind boggling plot addition. I am of course referring to the EELS!

Why? Just why?

Was there any previous effort to build mystery of “I wonder where Arathusa gets its juice?” or “I wonder where the reject sorceresses go?” then just maybe the eels could have fit the story. But as things stand, the inclusion of the eels was beyond random and most certainly not the great reveal or character beat that was intended to cap off this episode. It was a practical way to sell the hardening of Yen’s persona, but very self-serving in its delivery and lacking the requisite setup.

I refuse.

Overall Yen’s story flails about attempting to give background to the sorceress. In trying to remold her into a protagonist of the show, most of the changes made to her character are underwhelming and ineffective. I dispute the necessity for this season to put a focus on Yennefer, but I do not begrudge them for trying to expand on a character that was sadly sidelined in the books compared to Geralt and Ciri. The fault here mainly lies in wasting the existing character details the show adapts while also not spending the requisite time and artifice in adding to her backstory. I’m not saying you cannot introduce new material, but if you decide to add to the source canon you have to match its quality.

Anya Charlota portrays this stage of Yennefer with an appropriate vagrant gaze. The actress’s age is not yet a disadvantage here. She performs excellently in selling the hunchback aesthetic and expertly mixes the timidness, anger and eventual confidence of the role. The makeup and prosthetics team also deserves a shoutout for making her deformity truly convincing.

Geralt

Geralt’s B plot fairs a bit better than Yen’s segments. It’s a mostly self contained adventure “adapting” the Edge of the World short story form The Last Wish.

It’s also our introduction to the Bard (Jaskier, Dandelion, Buttercup) who brings some much needed levity to the series. Joey Batey inhabits the role like he was born into it. It’s the perfect mix of adapting the best traits the book version had to offer, while also creating a fresh and unique take on the character.

As custom we begin in a generic tavern, but this time the focus is all on the bard. Rhyming potion with abortion also produced auidible cringe-grunts from my end but the lute-playing musician quickly endeares himself to the audinece. Focusing on Geralt through Jaskier’s eyes is a welcome change and the two share an instant buddy dynamic. This is a great example of chemistry that has been sorely missing from the show thus far. The stoic witcher and the overenthusiastic bard are an outstanding duo, who expertly play off of each other’s energy.

The story itself is nothing to write home about and fails to capture any of the substance of its source material. Nonetheless it is a seemingly coherent sequence of events with a well defined beginning, middle and end, which at this point counts as an achievement for the series.

I personally think Edge of the World is one of the weakest shorts in the books, so the changes to it did not particularly bother me. What did bother me was the absolutely horrendous, straight macabre CGI for the monster of this week. I understand that most of the show’s budget is exhausted just by retaining Cavil, but anyone who thinks the silvan looked even remotely acceptable needs a strong pair of prescription glasses.

The setting of Geralt’s adventure, Posada, is a great positive for this episode. Finally some non-generic fantasy backdrop that viewers can delight in. The valley with its inhabited spires, large cliffs and sweeping hills helps greatly in starting to establish a unique look for this world. Even the cinematography breaks its flavourless monotony to present some well framed wide shots of this environment.

Both the plot and its execution unexpectedly take a turn for the worse when the bard and the witcher get captured by elves. We briefly glimpse the exterior of where the pair is held captive, a large system of arches and caves carved into a mountain side. This hints at a larger group of elves making their home in this refuge. This promise is later shattered by the incredibly disappointing interior scenes. Only a single sparsely furnished cave is shown to the viewer and about 2 and a half elves make an appearance. The audience never gets a scale of the elven population, how they live or what they do aside from supposedly starving and taking prisoners. This is especially detrimental since the whole episode is so focused on highlighting the conditions of non-humans in this world. Yet they pass up the single opportunity to present us any meaningful context for the actual lives of these elves. It’s a lot of “tell” with very little “show”. The barren cave and strange costumes the elves wear make the whole scene feel like a grade-school stage-play.

Filavandrel is dropped into the middle of this shoddily put together scenario. It’s difficult to take the king of the elves seriously since we are given so little idea what he is actually king of. The costumes and set don’t make the elves themselves look destitute, it makes the production design look extremely budget. Filavandrel and the entire scene loses all sense of danger, importance or poignancy due to this cheap look. To be honest this whole sequence reminds me of a LOTR porn parody more than anything else. Both Filavandrel and the other briefly named-dropped elf, Toruviel are supposed to play roles later in the series but this introduction makes both of them entirely forgettable. Due to the setting, Geralt’s negotiation with Aldi Legolas (Filavandrel) carries little to no weight. It’s a fine opportunity for the witcher to assert his standing in the world’s hierarchy of duelling races, but does little to move the plot forward. In the end, Geralt talking his way out of the situation remains mostly unbelievable and provides an anticlimactic resolution to the already disheveled plot.

He is not wearing pants

On the bright side Geralt and Jaskier continue to produce quality banter throughout the episode. It’s even uplifting to have someone view Geralt as something other than a mindless killing machine. There is also some smart dialogue interspersed throughout the adventure that gives us a glimpse into how the witcher is overcoming the tribulations of the previous episode. (aren’t we all?)

Toss a Coin to Your Witcher is a right banger and in my opinion the best thing to come out of this entire series. The song provides a superb end cap to the episode and imbues the entire show with a much needed sense of identity. It’s an authentically catchy tune and I notice myself humming it quite often. That being said, it felt rather out of place using this song to also score Ciri’s and especially Yennefer’s ending in this episode. It’s more of a “riding off into the sunset” song than a “my friends have been turned into CG eels and I am sweeping them into a pond” type of tune.

Ciri

Ciri’s story continues to be serviceable. Her newfound fear and desperation is portrayed well and fits perfectly into the plot. The appearance of rat-boy Dara is a questionable addition. He is a negligible presence in this episode only serving as someone Ciri can act against. His muteness is a more frustrating than intriguing choice. The princess muddying her hair is a good hint at her resourceful nature and highlights her bleak situation, even though the act itself makes close to no sense. In yet another continuity error, the muddy hair gets significantly cleaner between takes that are supposed to be consecutive scenes from Ciri’s perspective, but are broken up by the other plots.

The refugee camp where she ends up is a very well crafted setting. It’s the first place we’ve seen in the show that feels truly lived in. The hastily put up tents and huddled desperate masses grant this setting a palpable gloomy atmosphere. It’s a shocking contrast to the meager production design and generic feel of all other sites so far. It’s crystal clear that the reason this feels like such an improvement is due to the show finally utilizing some extras and stopping for a moment to breathe and take a slower, closer look at its own world. Every little moment we observe here adds tremendous amounts of detail to the situation . It’s the first time during the series where I could point at the telly and proclaim: “This is the world of the Witcher I know”.A true shame that other parts of the show hardly match the visible skill and resources that bring the refugee camp to life.

The characters Ciri encounters here are all well placed and effectively represent aspects of the world’s lore. They serve as rare examples of exposition done right, although the shoehorning of Filavandrel’s mention still feels inorganic.The noble family who take Ciri in, contribute great contrast to our established notion of this society. The main theme of racial tension is put forth in an understandable manner with suitable moral ambiguity. The dialogue is sharp and multi-layered. It finally establishes moments of interpersonal conflict to illustrate the tensions at large. Dwarves being played by actual vertically challenged individuals is a strange choice for a fantasy show, but I’m willing to go with it at this point.

The night raid on the camp expertly adds to the mounting feeling of despair. It’s particularly impactful since the camp was such a well realised setting. The false sense of security being stripped away is an excellent moment for Ciri’s development. The dwarf’s surprise rebellion is a violent delight that brought a great moment of horror to the show. It’s one of the only times this episode where I had a genuine emotional reaction.

Dara saving Ciri is a bit deus ex machina, but it does not break the amassed tension of events. The reveal of rat-boy being an elf strikes completely ineffectual, and his sudden ability to speak was more frustrating than revelatory.

Elves portrayed by people of color is not a choice we see often in popular fantasy. I personally applaud the show for the initiative but find much to be desired in the execution. I want to make it clear I do not begrudge the inclusive casting decisions the show is making, it’s easy enough to say that this version of the Witcher’s world just had more inter-mixing with Zerrikania. But in the specific case of elves, who already stand as a metaphor for historically oppressed groups, casting someone of african descent severely lessens the theme’s complexity and intended subtlety.

Conclusion

In summary this episode displayed some wildly inconsistent writing and production quality. The sparse high notes do little to compensate for the overwhelming cheapness of this outing. The plot does succeed in engraving the main theme of racial conflict, but does so in the most heavy-handed way possible. Yennefer’s circumstances and the entire elvish subplot are rushed and unrefined, all stemming from a failure in adaptation and the markedly lacking quality of new material. The refugee camp and Jaskier’s inclusion are towering peaks of positivity in a sea of conceptual errors and rushed executions.

The Dunkirk Fuckery continues to disappoint. The cross-referencing of stories is fundamentally detrimental to the pacing of the episode.When the writing does the occasional nod and a wink to a parallel story, it all feels forced and stops the plot’s natural flow dead in its tracks.

I read the books several times and I still have a hard time placing events in the show’s chronology. References to seemingly significant events, like the Great Cleansing, are just plain confusing in most cases.

Every scene is over-crammed with exposition and somehow the show still struggles in setting up a consistent mythology. Jaskier even makes a joke along the lines of “here I go delivering exposition again”. I must emphasize: being self-aware about this problem does not alleviate it. In fact it makes it worse.

I rate this episode four marks.

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An unsophisticated critique of all things witcher. Currently suffering through the Netflix adaptation. Written by Marcell Sarosi. Edited by Robert Simola.

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The Bitcher

The Bitcher

An unsophisticated critique of all things witcher. Currently suffering through the Netflix adaptation. Written by Marcell Sarosi. Edited by Robert Simola.

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